Merritt Cleaners at 678 Nostrand Avenue
I have been intending to do a profile of Merritt Cleaners for some time, and on September 26 I finally got to it. I dropped my the establishment around noon to talk to Richard, who is effectively the owner, though legally it is his parents who hold the lease on the place. Next year they must decide what to do with another store they own on Franklin Avenue – H.M.S. Cleaners. The lease runs out there next year, and a new law forbids dry cleaning to take place in a residential building, which is the case at H.M.S. As Richard's father, who owns H.M.S., is not in the best of health, the family needs to think carefully about the future. The building on Nostrand Avenue is not residential, so the operation there can continue, and Richard at age 28 is up to doing just that.
Richard's father came to the U.S. from Korea in a series of steps in the 1980's. He first worked for someone in Hawaii but wished to own his own business. He came to New York and worked as a limousine driver, mostly at night. His wife joined him, and they had two children, Richard and a younger sister, who is now a medical student, and they lived in a cramped apartment in Bay Ridge. Both children were good students – Richard went to Mark Twain Middle School and then Stuyvesant High School. After that he went on to the Genesee Campus of the State University. At this time, Richard had his first bad experience with automobiles. He was in a bad car accident – the vehicle flipped over several times, and he was in a coma for a day. A few weeks later he had to take college exams. In the meantime his parents had started the cleaning business and did well, first working in someone else's place and then buying that person out. They moved out of the city to New Hyde Park on Long Island; it meant better living conditions but a commute to get to and from work.
When Richard was in high school he had helped out in the family business. He found himself distracted by the party scene at Genesee and came back to the city. He tried a semester at Brooklyn College but was disheartened when a professor having personal problems gave low grades to his class. He ruined Richard perfect grade average. He left college for good. The family business seemed the obvious move. Richard's father had had a hard time at H.M.S when he started it in the early part of the century. The neighborhood was dangerous. Cleaners need to stay opn in the evening, and it was hard to find employees because the streets were not safe. Richard's father was robbed and beaten on one occasion. Also the work can be punishing – lifting heavy loads and putting in long hours, but the family stuck with it, and Richard joined the operation.
The leased the site at Merritt, fixed the place up, and soon it was prospering. This is when fate again sent a vehicle into Richard's life. An older man taking a van out of a parking space on Nostrand apparently mistook the gas for the brake and sent the vehicle crashing into Merritt Cleaners doing an enormous amount of damage. The man's insurance had just run out and Merritt's insurance only covered a fraction of what had been ruined. The store was closed by the city as a safety hazard, and then con men showed up saying they could help taking money and doing nothing of any use.
However, the store came back and seems prosperous today. They do the cleaning on the premises and tailoring as well; the cleaning service is same day. Both Richard's parents sew, and Richard has learned also. I saw his mother working at a sewing machine just inside the front door. The place has an excellent reputation for doing good work. People come from other cleaners complaining of lost clothes, delays in service, and bad work. Richard is sympathetic to the move to organic cleaning, but he says it just doesn't do as good a job. He hopes that the technology will develop and make it better, but in the meantime Merritt will stick with the old methods that work best.
Richard is pleased with the economic development in Crown Heights. It has made the neighborhood safe, and the prosperity has made the business do better and better. He obviously does not like the long hours and the commute from Long Island. Also Richard is single and lives with his parents, but he is resigned to the drawbacks and feels Merritt has an obligation to its customers who trust the work they do and depend on it. The store offers students of SUNY Downstate, where his sister studies, a discount, and there is a welcome sign over the door of the place, and it is clear they really mean it. The lease on the store runs for another five years, and Richard is committed to seeing the lease out. One would not be surprised if he bought the place or signed a new lease for another ten years, and eventually both his parents might be working with him on Nostrand. Through all the travails Richard and his parents have gone through, they have prevailed, and they are now owners of a successful business that is an important asset to the community.
– John DeWind